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I hit the road and left Dad alone at Christmas

I felt pretty guilty leaving my father alone on Christmas, but when my mother suggested that she, her new boyfriend and I go on a road trip across the continent to attend a gathering of her family, I couldn't pass it up.

"I'll call you," I told my father when I hugged him goodbye, my future stepfather's blue Toyota waiting for me outside. It was the early nineties and I was 14.

"Okay," he said, forcing a smile. "Have a good time."

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His new girlfriend lived in the same apartment building as us, so he wasn't going to be completely alone. That's what I told myself.

The road trip was a blast. We played 20 questions a million times and laughed at funny town names. The drive wasn't without mishap, however; an extreme cold snap froze our doors shut overnight, and one of the belts under the hood screamed like a stabbing victim for several hundred kilometres until we found an open garage on Christmas Eve day, and a guy who could be bribed to replace it ahead of the rest of his lineup.

On Christmas Eve, we were happily ensconced in a living room filled with the soft light of candles, besweatered aunts and uncles, and the aroma of turkey from the kitchen. I found a quiet corner of the living room to check in on my father.

Somehow, my call was accidentally patched through to a man on the ground in Iraq during the U.S. bombings. Or, wait a minute, was that my father?

"I CAN BARELY HEAR YOU. IS THIS THE PLUMBER?" he shouted through a background of apocalyptic thunder.

"Dad! It's me!" I shouted back, causing the aunts and uncles to peer up from their books.

"Micah!" he shouted.

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"Dad," I whispered. "What's going on?"

My father was ankle deep in water, standing in the bathroom with the cordless phone. A pipe had burst because of the extremely cold weather, and water had been shooting out of a hole in the wall. He had been waiting for the plumber for hours, trying to keep the flood contained to the bathroom.

"Jesus," I said. "Is all my stuff okay?"

"So far, your room hasn't been touched!" he shouted over the noise. But the water was marching its way across the entire apartment, soaking the carpet and furniture.

"Can you move my baseball cards from under my bed?"

"I'll try, Micah," he said tersely, then hung up to head back to battle.

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A few days later, as we made the drive back, I remembered other cherished objects of mine to worry about. Was my room still a safe zone? Were my baseball cards intact?

When I finally arrived home and opened the door to the apartment, there was nothing stirring, not even my father. I found a note on the kitchen table, in his girlfriend's handwriting: "Your father is in the hospital. Call me."

My father had had "something like a heart attack," she told me - but all I heard was "heart attack" and all I could think was "dead Dad."

I couldn't see him till the next day, she said. I held my breath for the whole 45-minute drive to my mother's house. I didn't sleep that night.

When I finally saw him in his hospital bed, he looked like he'd just woken from a very long winter's nap.

I let out my breath then, as well as a few tears I'd been containing.

"I'm so glad you're okay," I said, hugging him.

"I'm still alive," he said. And after a few moments: "The water never made it to your room."

I laughed a little. "I forgot to check."

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